For a long while now, a friend of mine, Nick, has been pushing to play a Pathfinder Adventure Path. With all of the traction they’ve gotten, it’s not surprising.
And for a long while, I resisted running an Adventure Path, namely because the idea of running module, let alone a series of modules didn’t appeal to me...at first.
But then, I remembered my days playing Living Greyhawk and how much fun they were. I recalled how fun running something prepared can be. It allows the GM to really prep for each moment of the game, making sure it will be the best than it can be. In terms of minis and terrain, you can literally plan months in advance for those, giving you time and space to get some really gorgeous tables together.
Rise of the Runelords
So, after looking over some of Paizo’s Adventure Paths, I settled on Rise of the Runelords. What drew me to it was that it wasn’t just a D&D adventure, but it also had horror elements to it.
Also, I noticed that a lot of monsters and encounters in the Rise of the Runelords, if you nudged them a little this way or a little that way, could be Celtic in origin. Undead are obviously not Celtic. But goblins definitely are. Ogres are. Giants are.
Goblins in the Pathfinder system can be nasty.
So, I decided to move the adventure path over to Mythic Ireland.
The Fun of a Mythic Setting
Probably the most fun thing about a mythic setting like mythological Ireland, for me, is what makes the Conan stories so fun for me after all of these years. A question was asked the writers of the Conan RPG if the Hyborian setting was a low-magic or high-magic world. The answer was that it was both.
What they said was, and I paraphrase, that the world of Conan was steeped in magic. Wizards abound. Magic produces wondrous effects. But despite these grand powers being thrown about, the magic of the Conan stories is never treated as commonplace.
That, to me, is interesting and intriguing. It’s always cool to play in a world where magic is mysterious and unknowable. What is more intriguing is to play in a world where magic abounds...but is still mysterious. We dealt with that when we were putting Witch Hunter: The Invisible World together.
The reason these sorts of settings are fun for me is that they introduce an interesting tension. On the one hand, you have a society where magic part of everyday life. On the other, you have this deep, superstitious fear of it.
This was also one of the hardest concepts to get across to my players, because as soon as we were rooted in something quasi-historical, the thought was that it was going to be a low-magic game, but that’s not what I was looking for. Particularly if I wanted to run Rise of the Runelords.
The Rigors of Gaming in a Quasi-Historical Setting
So, that brings me to my next topic - historical gaming. I've done quite a bit of historical gaming. Both strictly historical (Boot Hill), quasi-historical (Vampire: The Dark Ages, Masque of the Red Death, Witch Hunter), and fantastic-historical (Deadlands).
When you decide to use history as a launching point of a game, you have to decide on how "accurate" and "historical" you want to be. Your adherence can range from the very strict to just winging it with what you know off of the top of your head.
There's no right or wrong here, just your preference as game master. The real challenge, then, is bringing your players up to speed with the degree of your historical strictness. Obviously, if you want to be fairly strict in your historical facts, then you need to be prepared to dump a lot of information on your players but do it without boring them with dry facts.
I personally like to do this by giving everyone a baseline level of information, and then as the game progresses, continue to add information as we go. In this way, the players can discover the tropes of the setting as they encounter them.
Some of the interesting things that I had to get through to my players:
- The Perception of Magic: It was very interesting to try to get my players to grasp the concept of a world where magic, science, superstition and religion all occupied the same space. For most people in this time period, for example, most people don't see much of a difference between a cleric and a wizard.
- The Fey, the Fey, the Fey: I really tried to hammer home the importance of the Faerie in Irish Folklore and the prominence they had in everyday life. From the time you woke up, to the time you went to bed, there were hundreds of little rituals that people in historical Ireland observed due to their belief in the fair folk. For example, in some parts, they kept their beds away from windows, so as not to get grabbed by a hag. When a farmer harvested his field, he kept one stalk standing so that the dryad that lived in the field would have a place to stay. Cutting down the last stalk in a field would mean killing the fey or making him move on, threatening a poor harvest in the next year.
- Bards: Interestingly enough, a lot of people were caught up in the D&D perception of the bard, which is as a sort of foppish, perhaps even decadent character. However, in this setting, bards hold a position of honor and are part of a king's court.
- The Ancient Church: Christianity in the 10th century was very different from how it is practiced today. However, it was difficult to hammer home how different this faith was from how it is practiced in the modern day.
Other Cultures, Other Times
For me, part of the fun of a historical setting is to explore older customs and the idiosyncrasies of the time period. For example, gaming in the Victorian Era is fun because of their adherence to rank, custom, etiquette and procedure. By playing with these tropes in mind, it helps transport you away to a different world, because you are being asked to act differently, think differently, and see the world differently.
That's one of the allures of playing in Medieval Ireland. More on that later.